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Former Leafs GM Brian Burke thrives in a different role in Calgary

Brian Burke, President of Hockey Operations for the Calgary Flames is photographed in the team's locker room on September 02, 2015.

Chris Bolin/The Globe and Mail

There really isn't much left of what Brian Burke built in Toronto.

It feels like a lifetime ago, but it was – incredibly – only three years back that he was dumped as Toronto Maple Leafs general manager, just before that abbreviated season when they made the playoffs for the only time in the past dozen years.

There was a time many fans wanted him back, in the dark days of the 2013 off-season. Now, he and his tenure are largely forgotten.

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The organization tore out the Burkie's Dog House hot dog sign at Air Canada Centre immediately after Burke was thrown overboard, but it took until last month for the foundation of his team to be fully dismantled.

Phil Kessel, traded last summer, was one significant pillar. Captain Dion Phaneuf, dealt to Ottawa six weeks ago, was perhaps the biggest.

When the Maple Leafs took the ice on Monday to face Burke's struggling Calgary Flames, with the old boss tucked away in some corner of the ACC watching his new club, they did so almost wholly as president Brendan Shanahan's team. The only holdovers left from Burke's era, on this night, were centre Nazem Kadri, defencemen Jake Gardiner and Morgan Rielly, and prospects drafted on his watch (Connor Brown and Josh Leivo).

Other Burke acquisitions such as James van Riemsdyk and Tyler Bozak spent the night on the Leafs' overflowing injury list, which hit 12 names with the loss of Leo Komarov.

Gone these days, too, is much of Burke's bluster. To hear those in Calgary tell it, the Flames president of hockey operations is a mellower version of his former self, often out of the limelight after playing a starring role in the press during those tumultuous four years in Toronto. There are no more wars with the media. Mostly just friendly hellos.

Today, Flames GM Brad Treliving is the public face of the organization on most hockey matters, and by agreement with the higher-ups, Burke plays a background role. But there are times when he steps up, as was the case with the NHL's controversial 20-game suspension of Dennis Wideman for a collision with an official.

Burke saw a player wronged, and GM or not, he had to intervene – even if it meant challenging the league itself through an exasperating grievance procedure. His players admire that.

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"He always, always has your back as a player," Flames captain Mark Giordano said. "It feels like whatever you need, he'll be on your side. On the ice, off the ice – everything."

"I have so much respect for the man," added Joe Colborne, the 26-year-old Flames centre Burke traded for when he was with the Leafs, and then again when he got to Calgary.

Burke's time in Toronto was difficult. A little more than a year after taking the job, his 21-year-old son, Brendan, was killed in a car accident in Indiana. Heartbroken, Burke continued to pour hours into the United States men's Olympic team and the Leafs, who bottomed out to second last in the standings in a season in which they didn't have a first-round pick. His marriage failed. He feuded with the media. The Leafs continued to lose, never earning a playoff spot. In public, he appeared increasingly weathered, and his combative act failed to impress new owners in initial meetings. Then he was gone.

After all that, a less demanding role in Calgary – with a young, rebuilding team and a less ready-to-riot fan base – has been a good fit. The Flames players credit Burke with being a steadying, behind-the-scenes influence, someone who they can talk to any time they need counsel.

They also marvel at how prevalent he is in the community, not just in Calgary but in Toronto, too – he has two young daughters there, and he flies back regularly to see them. "He gives back," Giordano said. "He definitely has a lot of Air Miles."

What the Flames haven't yet had with Burke on board is sustained success, but last year's run was a welcome respite. Many players credit Burke with keeping the team level during that playoff push to the second round, and again this season as the Flames have fallen back to the basement.

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While Burke may be making fewer headlines, he remains a presence in the dressing room, in the friendly uncle role, tie untied and bawdy stories at the ready.

"Typical Burkie," Colborne said. "He's still ripping around and hanging out with the boys and being one of the guys. With some of the young guys on the team over the last couple years – [Sean] Monahan, [Sam] Bennett, Johnny [Gaudreau] – it's nice to see him come down. You grow a relationship with him. It's not management coming from some far-off thing that you never see. It's creates a close-knit family."

"He knows when guys are going through tough times," Giordano added. "He knows when guys are going through good times. He's good at helping in both situations."

Perhaps because he has been through a lot of both.

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About the Author
Hockey Reporter

James joined The Globe as an editor and reporter in the sports department in 2005 and now covers the NHL and the Toronto Maple Leafs. More

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